Seventy-one years ago tomorrow, December 7th, 2012, Pearl Harbor on Hawaii was attacked by the Japanese, thus catapulting the United States into World War II. On this, the eve of the anniversary of one of the most significant events in not just the history of the U.S., but also the world, I pause to think about the Pearl Harbor tour I took on Oahu years ago while visiting a friend who lives on the island. It was one of those days which wasn’t just memorable, but changing.
A few days before, the three of us – a friend of mine from London, Stephen, and our friend who we were visiting in Kaneohe – spent the day out and about exploring the beaches of Oahu. The entire time I was preoccupied with the thought of seeing Pearl Harbor. The history nut in me was drawn to it like the beach bums to Waikiki. And it didn’t help any that I experienced a teaser on Makapuu Point, just a short drive south along the coast from my friend’s house in Kaneohe.
Dan, my Hawaiian friend, was showing us not just some of his favorite beaches, but also some of the finer vantage points on the island. One of those, Makapuu Point, was absolutely stunning, but also historically interesting because of the old pill boxes, or gun emplacements, that remained. I didn’t want to seem rude and ignore the view, so I happily took photos with my friends, but I was yearning to more thoroughly explore the structures, something I would do more of on a hike up Diamond Head on another trip to Oahu, and get on over to Pearl Harbor.
On our fourth day in Hawaii, finally, we made the drive across the Pali Highway from Kaneohe to Honolulu and up to Pearl Harbor. It was the day I had been waiting for ever since reading about the attack long ago in grade school. And so, without hesitation, although likely as a result of my boorishness, we purchased tickets to see all of the sites in the harbor: the Bowfin Submarine, the USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Missouri, and a separate museum on the site of the old airfield. We toured each in that order.
The Bowfin Submarine, nicknamed The Pearl Harbor Avenger, was built and launched in 1942. After leaving New England, she passed through the Panama Canal on her way to the Pacific War theater. The Bowfin went on nine different patrols, sinking a totally of 15 enemy ships between 1943 and 1945, although one was an unmarked cargo ship carrying hundreds of Japanese school children, most of whom died. The Bowfin was decommissioned for the third and final time in 1971. Since 1979 it has called Pearl Harbor home, open as a museum since that time.
Walking through it was an experience unlike any other I’ve had before or after. It’s also a blatant reminder as to why I never joined the Navy: I could barely fit into the rooms let alone through the doorways. It is a tiny ship, one not built for people my size, although one which is obviously quite lethal and true to its name as an avenger. And from her deck we could see exactly what she was built for; the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial was clearly visible in the distance.
A short boat ride took us to the memorial, something which I had been emotionally preparing to see during my whole visit to Oahu. I don’t tend to be an overly emotional person, but I still didn’t want to break down for any reason over the sadness and solemness of the moment. I knew it would be intense, and it was, but it was also important for me to see it and remember, recalling the nearly 1,200 people who died on board; that is more than half of the dead during the entire attack. It is the burial site of many of those people, also that for those who survived the attack and now wish to be interred there with their ship mates. A list of those who died is at the far end of the memorial.
The tears of the Arizona, a leakage of oil measuring over two liters per day, still escapes the Arizona seventy years later. Seeing it rise to the surface near the parts of the ship which are still visible is a poignant reminder of what happened that day. And it is something which anyone visiting Oahu, quite literally, has an obligation to see to honor those who fell – any trip to Hawaii should have more historical or cultural depth beyond the beach – thanking them for what we have today.
The boat taking everyone back to shore was much quieter during the return journey. The gravity and the magnitude of the attack began to sink in, and people were not chatting nearly as much. While climbing through and on the Bowfin it was all fun, but the USS Arizona gave the day a totally different perspective. It not only showed me how horrific the attack was, but also the war; yet the transfer from there to the battleship, the USS Missouri, the Big Mo’, also helped teach me just how far the world came through those years since the attack to the final surrender of Japan.
By approaching the U.S.S. Missouri on foot I could truly appreciate how large it really is, and just how much firepower – four hits with 1,760 armor-piercing aircraft bombs – it took to sink the Arizona. The Big Mo’ – which was launched in 1944, specifically for World War II, and remained in service through the first Gulf War – is absolutely massive at nearly 900 feet in length and 45,000 tons; it took 2,700 officers and crew to man the ship. And that says nothing of the guns, topping out at 406 mm / 50 caliber – beasts I stared at on the deck and from above on the bridge.
The Japanese surrender, which ended World War II on September 2nd, 1945, occurred on the deck of the USS Missouri in the presence of several notable military leaders from all of the Allies, the most well-known of which is the Supreme Commander of the Allies Army General Douglas MacArthur. Standing on the spot where he accepted the surrender of a delegation from Japan, which was headed by their foreign minister, was a moment which changed me; to think of everything that happened during World War II – the attacks all across Europe, the concentration camps, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the war throughout the Pacific Ocean – and how it all ended on that one spot on that one day in Tokyo Bay.
We left on a tour bus from there to the Pacific Aviation Museum. My head was swimming, so I could barely concentrate on what we were seeing. I walked through the displays with a mild curiosity, but I was too overwhelmed to truly appreciate it. The only thought outside of what I had seen and experienced on the Arizona and the Missouri that could fit in my head was how I had seen the air tower outside in the movie Pearl Harbor with Ben Affleck. Pathetic, I know, but too much else was going on in my mind to truly retain anything from the museum.
The day was difficult and emotional, but also interesting and enjoyable. I had learned so much and I truly didn’t want the lesson to end. I was hungry for more. So, with little more than a pleading question to my friend, the three of us headed up a hill near downtown Honolulu to the Punchbowl Cemetery, more appropriately called the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. It’s not something I would normally be interested in seeing on vacation, a cemetery, but after everything we experienced at Pearl Harbor it seemed like the appropriate way to wrap up our visit.
We wandered amongst the gravesites of all of those who have died fighting in wars for the United States in the Pacific Ocean, not just World War II. It was a solemn visit, there was nothing cheerful about it, yet I felt I owed it to all of those who fought and died for my freedom to go there, thank them, and honor them for their service, no matter which war they fought in. And I’m glad I did take the time; while difficult, a visit to the cemetery is something every visitor to Oahu should do at least once. It is a beautifully manicured area with interesting diagrams on battles and historical information.
I recall President Abraham Lincoln’s words in a letter to Lydia Bixby, a widow from Boston who lost five sons in the American Civil War, which are printed on the wall near the Lady Columbia statue at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific:
THE SOLEMN PRIDE
THAT MUST BE YOURS
TO HAVE LAID
SO COSTLY A SACRIFICE
UPON THE ALTAR